Adjournment Debate. - Drogheda (Louth) Hospital.

I wish to share my time with my constituency colleague, Deputy Dermot Ahern. Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda is the largest acute hospital in the north-east. It is a voluntary hospital with a great reputation for health care in County Louth. In recent times the transfer of the hospital from voluntary status to be the responsibility of the North-Eastern Health Board has been agreed but not finalised. A letter proposing major cutbacks at the hospital has led to serious concern at staff level and among those who use the hospital on a regular basis.

The proposed cutbacks will devastate the level of service available to the hospital's catchment area. When negotiations for the transfer took place, was the budget readjustment mooted at that stage? The Medical Missionaries of Mary have given outstanding service to the counties of Louth and Meath and further afield, and the proposed cutbacks would have serious implications for staff and public alike. This debate will afford the Minister of State at the Department of Health an opportunity to clarify his Department's intentions and allay many fears in the Drogheda area. The town of Drogheda has suffered seriously because of sluggish industrial development. Our Lady's Hospital is the largest single employer in the town and any cutback in staff would have serious implications for the local economy.

I thank my colleague for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this matter. I endeavoured to raise it by way of Private Notice Question but it was ruled out of order because the matter was not considered urgent. I also received representations from paramedical staff about their strike and, unfortunately, that question was also ruled out of order. I am beginning to wonder how we can raise issues of immediate concern to our constituents. Because of the insistence on rules, one wonders if the Dáil is becoming more irrelevant. If the Government wanted those questions to be answered it would have provided for that. When we were in Government we allowed Private Notice Questions practically every day.

I reiterate the points made by my colleague and wish to quote from a letter I received which states:

The management team have met the Department of Health on two occasions on this matter and they have stressed that no further funding will be made available to our agency in the current year. The Department are insisting that the hospital now submit a service plan. The board of management have instructed the Chief Executive Officer to implement whatever measures are necessary to meet the requirements of the Department of Health.

Included in the proposed reductions are that a five day medical unit would be closed, theatre activity would be curtailed to one session per week in each specialty and GP referrals would be reduced for x-ray, laboratory and physiotherapy services. Other proposals are also listed in the letter.

The Minister will probably say that a meeting took place between the Medical Missionaries of Mary, the North Eastern Health Board and the Department of Health and that this letter has been withdrawn, but that will make me very suspicious.I would welcome withdrawal of the proposals, but the Department has in recent weeks insisted that no further funding will be made available and that the hospital is to reduce its level of service to the 1995 level. Was the letter withdrawn on the basis that we are approaching a general election? Will the Minister indicate whether the Department will be willing to make available in the Library the terms of the agreement reached between the North Eastern Health Board, the Department of Health and the Medical Missionaries of Mary on the sale of the hospital? I have no doubt that as the part of the negotiations the Department of Health and probably the North Eastern Health Board insisted that any shortfall would have to be met before the transfer could take place, otherwise there would be a reduction in the amount of money involved.

Despite the substantial amount of money put into the health services between 1992 and 1994, waiting lists are as long as ever. Are events in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital a forerunner of what will happen throughout the country, simply because the Government has spent much money in other areas? The cuts should be prioritised, with cuts in the area of spin doctors and advisers, on which £34 million was spent in one year, before proposing cuts for Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital.

I would like to reassure the Deputies that there are no serious difficulties arising from the transfer of ownership of the International Missionary Training Hospital, Our Lady of Lourdes, Drogheda, to the North Eastern Health Board as has been suggested. Deputies will be aware that the Minister for Health made an announcement on 15 April 1997 that the Government had agreed to the transfer of ownership of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda, to the North Eastern Health Board for a consideration of £5.5 million. Negotiations between the Congregation of the Medical Missionaries of Mary and the North Eastern Health Board, on the basis for the transfer of ownership, have been ongoing since November 1996 and were successfully concluded recently. The Government decision to authorise the transfer of ownership will enable the parties to complete the transfer, which is expected to be finalised by the end of May 1997.

The hospital, in common with all other agencies, was notified by the Department in December 1996 of the requirement to produce a service plan within budget for 1997. Following a tripartite meeting yesterday involving the Department of Health, the North Eastern Health Board and the IMTH, Our Lady of Lourdes, Drogheda, a formal collaborative working relationship has been established between the hospital and the health board in order to address the issues relating to the hospital's service plan for 1997. The hospital and the health board have set to work immediately to agree a service plan within allocation, in line with the requirements of the Department's letter of determination. Furthermore, they have given assurances to the public that a high quality, comprehensive service will continue to be provided and that the challenges currently facing the hospital will be overcome. The health board has reiterated its guarantees that all staff contracts will be honoured. The Minister has been advised that there is active consultation between the health board and staff representatives to address any concerns they may have in this regard.

The hospital and the North Eastern Health Board share a mutual concern for the achievement of excellence in the delivery of health services and have been working over the past four years to develop an integrated service for the Louth-Meath region. The first step in this process was the establishment in 1993 of the Louth-Meath hospital group, comprising the three hospitals in the region, located at Navan, Dundalk and Drogheda. The transfer of ownership of the hospital to the health board offers a unique opportunity to consolidate the partnership which has existed for many years between the two health agencies. The consolidation of the Louth-Meath hospital group under unified management will serve to enhance the status of each of the participating hospitals, as well as deliver a high quality service to the people of the region.